This year we have been working with Dr Carolin Schurr in Switzerland. Her new ‘Follow the Thing: Studying Transcultural Markets’ course at the University of St Gallen ran in parallel to our ‘Geographies of Material Culture’ course at the University of Exeter. To showcase the awesomely critical, creative scholar-activist work that our students produce, this year we’ve published student guest blogs about gun sights, iPhones and paint. This post contains two pieces of work on palm oil by Carolin’s students Gianmarco Zorloni, Harpreet Perhar, Julian Krauth, Leonardo Ehnimb and Milan Kuzmanovic. We start with a short animated information film (expertly put together using Videoscribe software), followed by a script showing how ‘the thing with palm oil’ can enter conversation and affect behaviour, and finishing with the research report upon which this work is based. How can you respond to ‘follow the thing’ research that finds that thing in, more or less, everything?!
The information film
Passengerfilms – a London-based ‘car crash of cinema and geography’ – invited Ian to suggest a film and panel discussants for a screening in February this year. He chose Sasha Friedlander’s documentary Where Heaven meets Hell in which audiences get to know four men who mine sulphur from inside a live volcano in Indonesia. A new followthethings.com page was published on the film and he recommended it again as part of the film programme for the Museum of Contemporary Commodities in Exeter. The screening is tonight. Is all sulphur mined in volcanoes? NO! Says London panellist Prof Gavin Bridge in this guest post. It is ‘mined’ in more surprising places…
Where Heaven Meets Hell conveys the aspirations, social relations and hard physical labour of a group of men who earn their living by prying chunks of sulphur free from the mouth of an Indonesian volcano. Viewers are drawn into a world of work one can scarcely imagine exists – a world of cloying smoke, hacking coughs, scarred muscles and bodyweight-loads hauled up over the volcano’s rim and down the mountain to be sold. The filmmaker, Sasha Friedlander, artfully works a trope familiar to other ‘revelatory’ commodity stories, exposing the social lives through which natural materials become objects of economic exchange. Continue reading
It’s happening right now.
At least one class of Year 8 students at an Exeter high school are doing some Nike homework this weekend.
Natalie Batten, one of the newly qualified Geography teachers who has been using followthethings.com with her students as part of our #followtheteachers project, has already blogged about an assignment like this. Click this button to read about her experience and advice.
If you’re interested in what it life and work can be like for the people who make sports clothing, we have some other recommendations that aren’t on our sire. The first film is on Nike and could be a vivid and useful source. But other students in other schools may have been given Adidas to research. We have a couple of films for you too, if that’s what you’ve been asked to research. And, at the end, we bring things right up to date: with a way to compare these two companies / brands.
Nike: behind the Swoosh
A student at the US’s largest Catholic University feels disgusted with what he reads about Nike and ‘sweatshops’ and, when he refuses to wear his University’s Nike soccer kit, he’s fired. So he sets off to Indonesia with a friend to find out if the factory and living conditions he’s read about are as he imagines. People at University keep telling him that things are fine. What he sees, what he does, and the people he meets in Indonesia have a powerful effect on them and what they decide to do next.
If you’re studying Geography and your homework is about Adidas, you should find this next film interesting. It’s a 2001 episode of the Mark Thomas Comedy Product TV series that involves a class of Geography students in London finding out – with the comedian/activist’s help – about the company’s labour practices in a unique, face-to-face way, in their classroom. Fast forward to 6 minutes 13 seconds. That’s where it starts.
Not OK here, not OK anywhere
This short video was produced by the charity War on Want as part of its campaign to highlight the abuse of workers making Adidas sportswear for fans and athletes attending the 2012 Olympic Games in London. It was part of a wider campaign whose webpages are listed here.
Commitments to workers: 2013 update
If you have been studying the collapse of the Rana Plaza garment factory in Bangladesh in April this year, you may find it interesting to see which company has and which has not signed the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh. There’s a story about one signing and the other not signing in this newspaper story. But check the latest list that’s published here. The situation may possibly change…
If you have just read Ian’s piece ‘What to do if you find a cry for help in your Christmas presents this year’ in The Conversation, a link will probably have brought you here. Where have you arrived? This is the behind the scenes ‘back office’ blog for the spoof shopping website followthethings.com. It’s a website that showcases Ian et al’s research into the making, reception and impacts of over sixty examples of commodity activism – from documentary films, to art works, to activist pranks – whose aim it is to encourage audiences to think critically about their relations with the people who make the things they buy, and about their powers to effect change. It also aims to encourage and inspire new ‘follow the thing’ research and activism, by anyone and everyone who wishes to do this. This post is updated every time we find a new example. It includes some examples that have been researched and showcased on the followthethings.com store, plus other that haven’t yet made it. Please let us know in the comments what we are missing. Thanks.
Our website followthethings.com is designed to bring together and confuse two kinds of ‘shopping’: going shopping for things, and shopping things (i.e. betraying their origins).
Taking new information into stores and leaving it on/in or attaching it to the goods concerned is shopping in both senses of the word. It’s one of the most direct ways of bringing trade justice issues into spaces and acts of consumption. Whether this is done by consumer activists or factory workers, by accident or by design, genuine or faked, it’s called ‘shop dropping’ (sometimes ‘droplifting).
Here’s our list of 16 examples, in date order, with some extras at the end.
1) The Barbies that talk like GI Joe (and vice versa)
Perhaps the most famous example of shop dropping was undertaken in 1993 when the Barbie Liberation Organisation bought a bunch of talking GI Joe and Barbie Dolls, switched their voice boxes and placed them back in store. This video explains everything.
And this handy worksheet shows you how you can make the switch yourself.
2) The letter left in the pocket of a pair of jeans
In the 2005 ‘follow the jeans’ documentary ‘China Blue’, ‘At the end … [factory worker Jasmine] leaves a letter addressed to one such person in the pocket of a pair of jeans. The film simulates the journey of this letter from the boxes in the port, to the ships that transport them, and finally to the up-scale store that stocks the jeans, implying the complicity of Western consumers in the exploitative dynamics of transnational capital’ (Source: Moll 2007 p.163-4). Read more about this film on our site here.
3) The photos found on a new iPhone
Photos and films taken on production lines to make sure that cameras work are sometimes left on cameras and phones for buyers to find. The most notorious are the photos taken of a young woman in a Foxconn factory in China who became known as ‘iPhone Girl’. Posted online by the person who bought the phone in 2008, they went viral online, generating arguments and suspicion worldwide. Read more about the ‘iPhone Girl’ phenomenon on our site here.
4) The Killer Jeans pocket labels
In 2011, to publicise its ‘Killer Jeans’ report, anti-sweatshop group Labour Behind the Label encouraged activists to print out and add to jeans in store the label below. They wanted to ‘hid[e] messages in the pockets of thousands of pairs of designer jeans this week to highlight the serious health risks faced by workers making jeans for designer brands including Dolce and Gabanna and Armani’. Read the story here. Watch a video of this activism in store, here.
5) The Adidas Exploitation price labels
In 2012 War on Want encouraged activists to add 34p price labels to Adidas goods in store to highlight the poverty wages of factory workers making its goods in Indonesia. Read the story here.
6) The film footage found on an HP laptop
Also in 2012, this film was found on a brand new Hewlett Packard Laptop. A TechCrunch post which features this film explains:
It was stored in the My Documents folder and clearly depicts the mundanity of life inside a hardware manufacturing plant. This was taken in the Quanta Chongqing Manufacturing City in Chongqing and the worker seems to be testing the camera on this particular model. Usually evidence of this testing is wiped out. It wasn’t in this case. Essentially, you’re looking at the face of modern manufacturing. He’s not mistreated, he’s not chained to his desk, but he’s building the same thing, over and over again, a prospect not many of us would relish. It’s a mundane view inside a fairly secret world that we as consumers rarely get to see.
7) The letter in the Saks Fifth Avenue Bag
In September 2012, a shopper at Saks Fifth Avenue in New York City found a letter and a passport photo in the paper shopping bag in which the checkout person had places her new Hunter wellies. It was written by Tohnain Emmanuel Njong, a Cameroon national who was making the bags while incarcerated in a Chinese prison. In the letter, we wrote “Maybe this bag could go somewhere and they find this letter and they can let my family know or anybody [know] that I am in prison.” Read our site’s new page on this letter here.
8) The letter in the Halloween decorations
In December 2012 an American consumer posted onto facebook a photograph of a letter found in a box of K-Mart Halloween decorations. The letter seems to have been written by a person who helped to assemble them in a Labour camp in China. It begins ““If you occasionally buy this product, please kindly resend this letter to the World Human Right Organization.” Read our site’s new page on this letter here.
9) The extra price tags in the Apple store
In March 2013 – when this post was first written – Friends of the Earth in the UK marked the opening of an Apple Store in Leeds by adding ‘price tags’ to the goods on sale. In this case, they were pointing out the ‘price’ paid by rainforests in the production of tin that’s in Apple and other electronic goods.
— Friends of the Earth (@wwwfoecouk) March 21, 2013
10) The labels and letter found in Primark clothes
In June 2014, news stories started to appear in the UK about labels like this being found in Primark dresses.
— ITV News (@itvnews) June 25, 2014
And other examples have started to appear in the news, for example.
— ITV News (@itvnews) June 25, 2014
We researched this story so far (see our page here).
11) The secret scrolls made & placed in clothes
In September 2015 ‘Sarah Corbett and other craftivists” set out “to lovingly handwrite messages onto beautiful paper and wrap them delicately in ribbon to place in clothes pockets in shops, fashion show seats and other secret places for people to find.” In making and placing these ‘secret scrolls’, they hoped, would “encourage people to think about who made our clothes, provoke questions and curiosity of the true cost of fashion, show the world that change is possible and celebrate all those creating a more sustainable future of the fashion industry.” In April 2016, they made this ‘how to?’ Mini Fashion Statements video for Fashion Revolution Day. It’s awesome.
12) The sketch and note found in a shoe box
In November 2015, a Reddit user posted a photograph of a sketch and note found in an unopened box of Naturalizer shoes.
Customer finds SOS note in a shoe box from Ethiopian worker https://t.co/1XHoFlQQYd
— Luna Atamian (@Lunatamian) November 7, 2015
The story, too, was sketchy. According to the Daily Mail, “A customer has found an SOS note in a shoe box claiming it is from a scared Ethiopian factory worker whose family were killed by soldiers. The sketched image of the worker with the accompanying note was uploaded to the website Reddit. It was translated by a user who claimed the worker said they were ‘hungry, sad’, afraid’ and pleaded for help. It also alleged that the worker’s family were killed by soldiers”. The post drew thousands of comments, some suspicious because it was posted on Reddit “the viral site that has a reputation as a source of some of the internet’s biggest hoaxes”.
13) the letter found in a pair of Primark socks
In December, an imgur user posted a photograph of a letter saying “Didnt know where else to put this, my dads just found this in a sock bought from Primark can anyone translate?” People responded, for example, saying “guy was framed for a crime he didnt commit and imprisoned, his wife ended up in mental hospital and his father was murdered”, “I’m Chinese and this letter is legitimately asking for help. You might want to report to police or news media”, “with enough attention it could probably hit the news” and “So if this is real, is there ever a good outcome to something like this?” Click the image below to follow the conversation.
14) The letter found in the Walmart handbag
In May 2017, Christel Wallace bought a purse from a Walmart store in Arizona. Inside it she found tiny folded note in a zipper compartment. Her daughter-in-law posted it on facebook asking if anyone could translate its Chinese characters.
— Dazed (@Dazed) May 3, 2017
The result? It says:
“Inmates in the Yingshan Prison in Guangxi, China are working 14 hours daily with no break/rest at noon, continue working overtime until 12 midnight, and whoever doesn’t finish his work will be beaten. Their meals are without oil and salt. Every month, the boss pays the inmate 2000 yuan, any additional dishes will be finished by the police. If the inmates are sick and need medicine, the cost will be deducted from the salary. Prison in China is unlike prison in America, horse cow goat pig dog (literally, means inhumane treatment).”
Wallace knew about the other examples of prisoner notes being found in commodities including one where the author was found by journalists (see above). She hoped that making her note public might have the same results (see here for the original story).
15) the notes in Zara clothes
In October 2017, Zara shoppers in Istanbul found labels saying “I made this item you are going to buy, but I didn’t get paid for it” in the clothes. The notes were said to have been placed there by the people who had made them in Turkey because their factory – owned by the Bravo corporation – had closed overnight, leaving them with three months of unpaid back pay and no severance (see here for the original story).
— Aykut ERSOY (@aykutersoy) October 31, 2017
To date, no more details have come to light about this story.
16) the note in the Advent Calendar box
In December 2017, 13 year old April Dorsett received an Amazon delivery containing an advent calendar from her dad. Her mum asked her if she had read the note her dad ordered with it (it said ‘love from mum and dad’). ‘Do you mean this one?’ she replied. It was hand written on the delivery note in the box: ‘Help me please. PMP STAFF ARE EVIL’. PMP is the recruitment agency that Amazon uses to staff its distribution depots in the UK. April’s Mum posted it on Facebook, telling Amazon that her daughter ‘found this inside of her box and is worried amazon are running sweatshops. … I’ve told her it’s probably a prank but can you just confirm that…’
— Daily Mirror (@DailyMirror) December 3, 2017
The story was published by national tabloid newspapers The Sun, Daily Mail and Mirror as well as local papers, including the Bolton Post. The Mirror had recently published an investigative piece called ‘Undercover at Amazon: exhausted humans are inefficient so robots are taking over‘ and all of the papers contacted Amazon and PMP for comment. PMP said they didn’t believe that the comment was accurate, but they would investigating the claim with its client Amazon (in the Mirror). Aprils’ mum Kim was worried and surprised: ‘I just hope no one gets in trouble or sacked for writing the note if it’s true. … You wouldn’t expect something like that to happen in the UK. You don’t like to think there is someone working in sweat shop. It’s shocking’ (in the Bolton Post).
17) the note found in the Christmas card pack
On December 21 2017, a short piece appeared in the UK’s Sun newspaper about a note found in a charity Christmas card bought in a pack from a Sainsbury’s supermarket by Jessica Rigby. She asked her friends to translate it, and they told her it was a greeting from a Prison product shop in Guangzhou, China.
Mum left stunned after opening a pack of Christmas cards https://t.co/CNyUGMCoWd
— The Sun (@TheSun) December 22, 2017
The Sun reported that her reaction was to worry that all of Sainsbury’s cards were produced in Chinese prisons, that the charities that raised money through Christmas card sales could unwittingly benefit from forced labour, and that she had heard horror stories of foreigners being falsely imprisoned in these places. The cards were not now so festive. Sainsburys apologised, and advised her to take them back to the store while they investigated. Readers’ comments included “what a nonsense story, who cares where the cards are made”, “If I found the note, I’d have framed it and put on a wall somewhere”, “I think she’s made this story up to try and get on big brother” and “Hats off to her. She has pals who can read and translate chinese. She has raised an issue of great importance. And the Sun has paid her for the story, thus giving her extra spending money for Christmas.”
After I mentioned the HP laptop video find in class, student Elaine King brought this photograph to class to show me. Her boss had found it in her holiday photos taken with a disposable camera. Elaine had, for some reason, kept it. This seems to be a disposable camera’s eye view of a disposable camera production line. How, why and by whom the photo was taken, we will never know…
What exactly is shop-dropping and what’s it like to do??
We didn’t know what this type of activism was called, until we found this Yes Men site that tells you how you, too, can ‘shop drop’. And this interview with Cheap Date Magazine’s Bay Garnett, in which the joys of shop-dropping are explained:
We did this thing called ‘Shop Dropping’ where we used to decorate clothes and drop them in shops. So in Victoria’s Secret we’d leave huge granny pants with a sign saying, ‘please take me home, I’m yours’ – it was just fun! The shop people were so disarmed because you’re putting something in a shop; you’re not taking it away. We did one in Prada, and literally the whole of Broadway was looking. We took this huge dress, a really, really disgusting dress, and we got paints and did like big heart and words saying, ‘I’m really lonely’, or something like that. I can’t remember who placed it, it was either me or Kira, but we placed it on Broadway in that Rem Koolhaas building, and it was just so perfectly placed that the shop people couldn’t do anything. There were queues of people looking – it was there for two hours and it was amazing. Because it was really funny. I mean I couldn’t do that now, because I don’t want to do that. But at the time it felt right, it felt really right. We’d also often go into a designer shop and there’d be all these perfect shoes, and we’d get a pair of really old fucked-up Converse, with writing and stuff on the feet, and put it in and then walk out. So you’d leave it there and wait for it to be found, and then take a photo. We’d spend Saturdays doing that (Garnett in Stoppard nd link).
Some shop-dropping is more deliberate than others, and a popular topic of debate is the truth/hoax value of the ones that seem to be accidental. What we love about them is that they spark our imaginations, and discussions, encourage us to ask what traces of human and other labour we could find on and in our things.
Bezanson, R. & Finkelman, A. (2009) Trespassory art. University of Michigan Journal of Law Reform 43(2), 245-322 [download here]
Biggs, J. (2012) A Unique View Inside An HP Laptop Assembly Line. TechCrunch 27 July
Bonanno, M. (2012) Barbie Liberation Organisation. in Boyd, A. (comp) Beautiful trouble: a toolbox for revolution. New York: O/R
Cantrell, A. (2005) Artists drop while they shop. CNN Money 20 July
Cook, I. (2011) iPhone 3G – already with pictures! (aka ‘iPhone Girl’). followthethings.com
Cook et al, I. (2017) What to do if you find a cry for help in your Christmas presents this year. The Conversation 22 December
Craftivist Collective (2015) Stockholm Craftivists secret scrolls in Fashion Week. Craftivist collective nd
Hart, J. (2014) ‘I found this in a box of Halloween decorations’. followthethings.com
Kelleher, W. & Cook, I. (2014) The letter in the Saks Fifth Avenue shopping bag. followthethings.com
Kelleher, W. & Cook, I. (2014) Cries for help found in Primark clothes (a.k.a.’labelgate’). followthethings.com
Lambert-Beatty, C. (2010) Fill in the blank: culture jamming and the advertising of agency. New directions for youth development 12, 99-112
Spicer, S., Horgan, A., Rastall, M., Mayers, J., Frost, A., & Donald, R. (2012) China Blue. followthethings.com
Stoppard, L. (nd) Interview: Bay Garnett. SHOWstudio nd
War on Want (2012) Adidas reels under Olympics ‘sweatshops’ protest” press release. War on Want 14 July
YesMenLab (2011) Shop Dropping Product Labels – by the Yes Lab. Destructibles 7 July
To continue the ‘letters from factory workers’ theme, we recommend this evocative book chapter analysing the content of un-sent letters found in the debris of a deadly toy factory blaze in Shenzhen, China in 1993. These were just normal letters home:
Chan, A. (2002) The culture of survival: lives of migrant workers through the prism of private letters. In Link, P., Madsen, R. & Pickowicz, P. (eds) Popular China: unofficial culture in a globalizing society. Boulder: Rowman & Littlefield, 163-188 [download here]
to be continued…
Last updated December 2017